Compared to two decades ago, the number of American Catholics getting married every year has been cut in half—that’s according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.  If that does not constitute a marriage crisis, it would be hard to imagine what would.  And it’s worth wondering if part of the problem lies in our presentation of marriage.

Pope Saint John Paul II—whose prescience is becoming increasingly evident—seemed to see this coming.  In 1994, he admonished us in his Letter to Families to not lose sight of the good of marriage:

I speak with the power of his truth to all people of our day, so that they will come to appreciate the grandeur of the goods of marriage, family and life; so that they will come to appreciate the great danger which follows when these realities are not respected, or when the supreme values which lie at the foundation of the family and of human dignity are disregarded.”

What does a society that largely disregards the goods of marriage look like?  We no longer have to speculate.  It’s the society in which we are living. 

There may be many reasons for this decline, beginning with the rather obvious fact that a smaller percentage of Catholics are attending Sunday Mass.  Yet, if that is the full explanation, how does one explain the fact that, during that same time frame, the number of priestly ordinations in America has slightly increased?  While one cannot exactly feel edified by the paltry number of priestly vocations, it is Holy Matrimony—not Holy Orders—that has experienced an actual vocational decline.

Perhaps we Catholic parents are doing a better job of communicating the good of religious life; may we all be blessed with the grace and wisdom to communicate that even better.  But for many young unmarried Catholics who seem increasingly reluctant to marry, we need to restate the case about the good of marriage.  And not only for them -- we need to restate the case about goods of marriage for married Catholics whose marriages are struggling.  Sadly, we are often not too great at doing that, and it sometimes has to do with our style of presentation. 

Sometimes, the question about vocations to young people is posed thus: “Do you want to pursue a religious vocation, thus giving your life to Christ…or do you want to get married instead?”  Though that is certainly not the only way in which the vocational subject is discussed, I have seen this essential question posed in that spirit many times.  This interrogative presumes that a religious vocation entails a gift to God and a vocation to marriage does not; it presumes that we must choose between the intimacy with a human and intimacy with God.  But phrasing such as this often illustrates a misunderstanding of the Sacrament of Matrimony; even prior to that, it can illustrate a misunderstanding of grace. 

The sacramental graces of Matrimony are given for the very reason of growing closer to God.  As it is explained in the Catechism: “Grace is a participation in the life of God.  It introduces us into the intimacy of Trinitarian life…” (1997)  In fact, all the sacraments—Baptism, Confirmation, Holy Communion, Penance, Holy Orders, Matrimony, Anointing of the Sick—exist to establish or increase our intimacy with God.  The divinely-graced intimacy in marriage is designed to further our intimacy with God Himself.  The beauty in this is that there is no conflict between a husband and wife loving each other, and loving God.  On the contrary, marriage can be a beautiful, lived expression of the two Great Commandments.  I have witnessed that expression.     

Just a few months before we were married, Lisa, my future wife, spent a weekend at a women’s retreat discerning her vocation.  When Lisa came back from that weekend, she said that the message she received was that while the life of a nun was good, it was not her calling.  She chose marriage; she chose me.

But it makes me wonder: How is her life as a wife and mother different than it would have been as a religious sister?  What comes most immediately to mind is that religious sisters take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.

But the sacrament of marriage has parallels with the religious life.  Marriage does not entail virginity, but it does mandate marital chastity; as Lisa and I have discovered, having children can be the actualization of poverty and detachment; and every Christian is called to obey God.  If Lisa had been a religious sister, she would have started and ended her day with her community in prayer, she would have served and cared for others throughout the day, she would have offered small sacrifices for the conversion of sinners, she would have offered her tasks of manual labor for the glory of God, and she would have prayed to grow closer to God every day. 

As it turns out, that is her life as a wife and mother.  When Lisa married me, she was not choosing between me and God; she was choosing to love God through another.  When Lisa married me, she was turning her life over to Christ, and so was I.  We were placing our faith not only in God, but in the belief that God would grant graces to each other.     

When we are speaking to our children about marriage, it is worth reminding them that Jesus began His public ministry at a wedding: the wedding feast of Cana.  Jesus went far beyond merely endorsing marriage; Jesus raised marriage to the level of a sacrament.  That is the greatest honor of any human relationship, but it also reminds us that marriage is, first and foremost, directed toward God. Our children need to know that all the vocations—single, married, religious—offer opportunities for sanctity and furthering an intimacy with God.  Instead of asking our children whether they wish to devote their lives to God or to marry, we need to explain to them that Christian marriage is a beautiful way to do both.  For many, marriage may very well be the answer to the question: How best can you give your heart, soul, strength, and mind to God?